A year of living dangerously

A year of living dangerously

Caveman terrorist spooks the West:Jason Burke in Islamabad and Brian Whitaker strip away the 'James Bond' hype heaped on Osama bin Laden

Originally published in The Observer, 3 January 1999

TEN DAYS ago Osama bin Laden held an unusual press conference. In a tent on the dusty plains near the south-western Afghan city of Kandahar, he read a short statement to a single Saudi journalist.

In it, he denied masterminding the bombing of two US embassies in Africa last summer - a crime for which he has been indicted in America - but said he supported the attacks and knew some of those involved.

Last week he dominated the Western media once more as the bodies of three Britons and an Australian - killed when the Yemeni army tried to free them from their Islamist kidnappers - were flown home.

Bin Laden, portrayed by the US as an omnipotent bogeyman, is certainly involved in Yemen, but it is much less clear whether he had any direct involvement in last week's bloodshed.

At his press conference, Bin Laden said the embassy bombers were 'true men who we respect and hold in the highest esteem', and renewed his call to Muslim nations to 'rise up and rid Islamic countries of the Americans and the Jews'.

It was a typically clever performance. He admitted nothing but, full of menace, hinted heavily at an active, if undefined, role in global terrorism.

Some things are reasonably certain. In June, Bin Laden convened an unprecedented meeting of Islamic terrorists under the umbrella of his Al-Qaida group.

He is aged between 41 and 45, was born the son of a very wealthy construction magnate and was heir to a substantial fortune. After university he fought the Russians in Afghanistan in the Eighties and was successively expelled from Saudi Arabia and Sudan for subversive activities.

Bin Laden's connection to Yemen is special. His family came from Aden, but most of them fled to Saudi Arabia in 1967 when the British left and Marxists took over. Osama was then a teenager.

The connection with Yemen resumed in the early 1990s - long before Bin Laden became a world celebrity. By 1993 the Yemeni authorities were convinced he was funding Islamic Jihad and sought his extradition from Khartoum.

A few domestic details have surfaced too. Bin Laden constantly moves between his various bases in eastern Afghanistan in convoys of blacked-out Toyota pick-up trucks. He is grooming his eldest son as a successor, has three wives and enjoys horse-riding and fishing.

THE 'ISLAMIC ARMY' that claimed responsibility for the kidnapping does not exist, according to the Yemeni authorities, but the people behind it are real enough: members of Islamic Jihad or a faction within it.

After the war of 1994 between the former regimes of North and South Yemen, Jihad split. About 60 per cent of its members left. The remainder dispersed into three groups based in the Marib, Abyan and al-Jawf provinces. It was the Abyan group - said to have about 200 members - which carried out the attack.

The Abyan branch of Jihad has a military training camp at Huttat in the Maraqisha mountains. Like the Bin Laden camp bombed by the US in Afghanistan, it is said to be 'virtually impregnable'. Last May, Yemeni police and troops attacked it - apparently with little success. Early in December the Yemen newspaper al-Umma reported that an assistant of Bin Laden was visiting Yemen to 'resolve differences' which had broken out at the camp.

One of the kidnappers who died last week was identified by Yemeni officials as 'Osama al-Masri', an Egyptian. The name is an alias, but the Egyptian authorities say the man is a wanted Islamic extremist.

One of the suspects arrested in connection with the Nairobi bombing had a Yemeni passport, though the authorities in Sana'a denied he was of Yemeni nationality, saying his passport was forged. There have also been reports that Yemenis were killed when the US struck back at Bin Laden's camp in Afghanistan.

THE AMERICANS clearly believe Bin Laden is a serious threat. Soon after the missile strikes aimed at his installations in eastern Afghanistan, a Manhattan federal grand jury indicted him and a number of associates on more than 200 counts connected with 'heinous acts of international terrorism'. He is accused of playing a key role in a series of terrorist attacks over the past five years on targets in America and the Middle East.

The Americans say they have thousands of documents, wire-taps and witness statements that prove their case. But while few contest Bin Laden's significance in the world of Islamic extremist terrorism, or deny that he has been involved in at least some of the attacks for which he has been indicted, many claim he is not as powerful as the Americans allege.

'I just don't think that a guy in a cave in Afghanistan can send off e-mails over a satellite phone ordering mass destruction anywhere in the world,' one London-based security expert said. 'Real life is not like James Bond films. It is just not that easy to hold the world to ransom.' According to one former intelligence officer, his role may have been inflated by security agencies supposedly working against Islamic extremism.

'These people are not very good with concepts. They prefer people. So the whole issue of Islamic extremism and how to deal with it gets boiled down to one man who can, at least theoretically, be arrested and jailed or destroyed from 500 miles away with cruise missiles.'